Why do we need to understand India's story?February 28, 2017

August 15 will mark the 70th anniversary of India's independence, yet Indian film industry is trying to depict two sides of history.

The Raj, which refers to the British colonial rule of India, had been a frequent topic among English authors and filmmakers. Locals were often seen in the background, uttering one short sentence or two. Gurinder Chadha's "Viceroy's House" hopes to change the perception.

“It's a painful period of British history to look at. There are no easy answers and no black and white villains,” she said.

It doesn't mean that Indian artists haven't explored this subject before. (Deepa Mehta's "Fire" showed how the partition brought irreparable scar to those who witnessed it.) Why must India's story mean to us? For one, Australia was also part of the British Empire. If we look at our history closely, we can somehow relate to the Indians. Think about the Aboriginal Australians, and how their forefathers felt displaced and betrayed by the white settlers. Moreover, the early inhabitants Down Under struggled to come into their own. (The Outback may not be a pleasant place for those who were accustomed to the temperate climate, but it was their new home. It was unmistakably Oz.) And it was an issue that wasn't fully healed up to now.

In the case of Indian and Pakistani artists, it wasn't a case of having the best of both worlds. British actors of Indian and Pakistani origins could be included in the mix. "Gandhi", winner of eight Academy Awards, featured Ben Kingsley in a titular role. He was one of the finest actors of his generation, who managed to carve a successful career in both sides of the Atlantic, yet only a few would know that he was of Gujarati Indian descent. India's freedom from colonial rule, which was followed by the partition, was the most painful moment in the history of the subcontinent. A distinguished artist like Salman Rushdie hated Richard Attenborough's biographical film, and not a few would agree with him. Locals and foreigners alike must watch a Bollywood picture to see the point of view of Indian colonialism by a local artist.

"Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" may be a loose adaptation of events that took in western India during the final years of the 19th century, but Ashutosh Gowariker portrayed Bhuvan, the leader of villagers who yearned for freedom from colonial rule, as the Indian counterpart of Rocky Balboa. It was the only way for the Western audience to appreciate this slice of history, even if the actual events may be far from it. For one, Bhuvan and his fellow villagers could have encountered more setbacks and endured more sacrifices. This would be the usual case of compromising in filmmaking, which won't be much different from ours. ("Rabbit-Proof Fence" would be a good case.) And the song-and-dance numbers turned unpleasant incidents into palatable viewing.

The time would come when artists chose to look at the positive aspects of what happened in the past. It won't refer to the Indian subcontinent only.

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